When William Peters died this week, the world lost a good man, I lost a valued friend and journalists everywhere a role model for what a reporter should be.
His obituary tells much about his award-winning TV documentaries, books and magazine articles but nothing about his passion for justice and dedication to getting the story right.
We worked together for a decade starting in the mid-1950s on everything from McCarthyism to racial integration. While Edward R. Murrow was reporting on TV the persecution of an innocent Air Force officer (dramatized in George Clooney’s movie, “Good Night, and Good Luck”), Bill Peters was doing the story for Redbook.
Two years later, when the Montgomery bus strike started, Bill went to Alabama for me to do the first article about Martin Luther King in a national publication under the title, “Our Weapon Is Love.”
In the 1960s, Bill wrote a series and a book with the widow of the murdered civil rights leader. Medgar Evers. Soon afterward, Murrow’s surviving partner Fred Friendly brought him to CBS.
In everything he did, Bill Peters was a meticulous reporter, but he didn’t leave his heart behind when he picked up a notebook. He respected facts but didn’t stop until he could find out what was going on under their surface.
Journalism purists might call what he did “soft news.” But as we learn over and over again, from McCarthyism to the selling of the Iraq war, “hard news” can be so controlled by the ruthlessly powerful that it becomes no news at all. Bill Moyers, another practitioner of “soft news,” recently demonstrated that in “Buying the War.”
Even the fabled Murrow, admired for World War II broadcasts during the bombing of London, is remembered today for the documentaries that brought down Joe McCarthy, exposed hidden poverty and revealed racism. Bill Peters followed in his footsteps.
The last time I saw him, Bill was researching a book about colonists who remained loyal to Britain during the American Revolution. He was always trying to understand and tell the stories of forgotten people.